Maui: Greeting the dawn on island of the rising sun

By Jim Eagles

Even on a foggy day, Maui is a natural wonderland, writes Jim Eagles.

Sunrises are spectacular on the volcanic peak of Haleakala in Hawaii. Photo / Supplied
Sunrises are spectacular on the volcanic peak of Haleakala in Hawaii. Photo / Supplied

As sunrise approached, the layer of cloud spread like a tablecloth across the 3055m high volcanic peak of Haleakala turned pink, then orange, then a bright flaming red streaked with veins of glowing gold.

Soon it looked as though the vast crater in front of us was once more spewing forth red-hot lava and setting the land ablaze.

This peak is the spot where, according to Hawaiian legend, the trickster demi-god Maui lassoed the sun with a rope made from his sister's hair and lengthened the day by forcing it to travel more slowly across the sky.

So important is that tradition, the island itself is called Maui and the name of the great peak on which we were standing means "house of the sun". And the centrepiece of Maui's Kahalui Airport is a statue of the demi-god himself holding the sun in his mighty hands.

When the orange globe of the sun finally appeared above the glowing volcanic horizon on Haleakala and edged slowly upwards, it was easy to imagine it might indeed be held in place by a great rope ...

At least I know that is what the sunrise looks like most of the time, because I saw it on a DVD playing in the Haleakala National Park headquarters.

But, unfortunately, the day I rose from my bed at 2am to make the pilgrimage to Haleakala, the peak was covered by a great bank of fog that even Hawaii's house-trained sun couldn't penetrate.

We could sense the sun must be approaching because the viewing point on the crater rim, where dozens of eager observers came by bus and car to marvel at the spectacle, grew gradually lighter.

A park ranger kept spirits up by explaining that while conditions were bad, they often came right very suddenly, and only once or twice a month did the sunrise spectacle not occur.

And luckily for us it was relatively warm at 10C - though still cold by the normal standards of the island - so the thermal blankets most people were swathed in weren't really necessary.

As we waited, the ranger told us more stories about Maui, how he was constantly tricking his brothers out of their catch, and how he fished up Hawaii in much the same way as Maori record him hauling New Zealand from the sea.

At the official sunrise time of 5.41am, another ranger performed a chant of welcome to the sun, saying "maybe it will help him overcome the fog", but although it grew lighter, the orb itself was not to be seen.

By 6am it was obvious that the performance was not going to occur, so the assembled spectators straggled away.

Still, there was some entertainment to be had.

The drive from sea level to the top of Haleakala, rising over 3000m in 60km, is apparently one of the steepest in the world. For a donation of US$1 ($1.56), the national park people provided a certificate confirming that I had survived "one of the greatest elevation gains in the shortest distance in the world".

Certainly my ears popped on the way up and coming down. Before we started on the upward journey, Bob, our bus driver, crushed a plastic drink bottle and screwed the cap on. By the time we had reached the summit, the drop in air pressure meant the bottle was back to normal. And by the time we got back to the bottom, the bottle was crushed again.

An Indian couple sitting opposite me marvelled at the way their unopened packet of potato chips gradually expanded as we climbed, until by the top it looked like a balloon. Bob said he had known those packets to explode in the thinner air of the summit. "It gave me a heck of a fright."

The top of Haleakala is also the only place the strange silversword plant, ahinahina, is found. Viewed through the fog, its silvery leaves did indeed look very swordlike. Apparently it takes 50 years to mature, flowers once and then dies. Tragic really.

On a normal clear day there would also be spectacular views from up here and the chance of spotting birds like the Maui parrot bill, several kinds of honeycreepers with long, curved bills and the insect-eating alauahio.

But one thing we could do in the fog was explore the excellent displays in the park headquarters, including the awe-inspiring DVD of what the sunset should have looked like. It was so impressive I watched it twice ... then bought a bookmark carrying one of the stunning photos.

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as a guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu up to three times a week.

Where to stay: The Plantation Inn is a superb bed and breakfast hotel in the heart of the old whaling town of Lahaina.

Kaanapali Beach Hotel is a larger, more modern, family-oriented hotel on the coast.

What to do: Polynesian Adventures run tours to see the Kaleakala sunrise.

Further information: See discoverhawaii.com.

- NZ Herald

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